TCHAIKOVSKY: Violin Concerto / Souvenir d'un lieu cher (Dmitry Yablonsky/ Ilya Kaler/ Lubov Doronina/ Russian Philharmonic Orchestra) (Naxos: 8.557690)
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Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Violin Concerto • Sérénade mélancolique • Souvenir d'un lieu cher • Valse-Scherzo
Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky retains his position as the most popular of all Russian composers. His music offers obvious superficial charms in its winning melodies and vivid orchestral colours. At the same time his achievement is deeper than this, offering an early synthesis between the Russian and the cosmopolitan.
Born in Kamsko-Votkinsk in 1840, the second son of a mining engineer, Tchaikovsky had his early education, in music as in everything else, at home, under the care of his mother and of a beloved governess. From the age of ten he was a pupil at the School of Jurisprudence in St Petersburg, completing his studies there in 1859, to take employment in the Ministry of Justice. During these years he developed his abilities as a musician and it must have seemed probable that, like his near contemporaries Mussorgsky, Cui, Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin, he would keep music as a secondary occupation, while following his official career.
For Tchaikovsky matters turned out differently. The foundation of the new Conservatory of Music in St Petersburg under Anton Rubinstein enabled him to study there as a full-time student from 1863. In 1865 he moved to Moscow as a member of the staff of the new Conservatory established there by Anton Rubinstein's brother Nikolay. For over ten years he continued in Moscow, before financial assistance from a rich widow, Nadezhda von Meck, enabled him to leave the Conservatory and devote himself entirely to composition. The same period in his life brought an unfortunate marriage to a self-proclaimed admirer of his work, a woman who showed early signs of mental instability and could only add further to Tchaikovsky's own problems of character and inclination. His homosexuality was a torment to him, while his morbid sensitivity and diffidence, coupled with physical revulsion for the woman he had married, led to a severe nervous breakdown.
Separation from his wife, which was immediate, still left practical and personal problems to be solved. Tchaikovsky's relationship with Nadezhda von Meck, however, provided not only the money that at first was necessary for his career, but also the understanding and support of a woman who, so far from making physical demands of him, never even met him face to face. This curiously remote liaison and patronage only came to an end in 1890, when, on the false plea of bankruptcy, she discontinued an allowance that was no longer of importance and a correspondence on which he had come to depend.
Tchaikovsky's sudden death in St Petersburg in 1893 gave rise to contemporary speculation and has given rise to further posthumous rumours. It has been suggested that he committed suicide as the result of pressure from a court of honour of former students of the School of Jurisprudence, when an allegedly erotic liaison with a young nobleman seemed likely to cause an open scandal even in court circles. Officially his death was attributed to cholera, contracted after drinking undistilled water. Whether the victim of cholera, of his own carelessness or reckless despair or of death deliberately courted, Tchaikovsky was widely mourned.
The first work Tchaikovsky was to write for solo violin was the Sérénade mélancolique, commissioned by Leopold Auer, who had succeeded Wienawski at Rubinstein's Conservatory in St Petersburg in 1868 and was to exercise a powerful influence over the development of violin-playing during the fifty years he spent in Russia. Auer, who had already played Tchaikovsky's string quartets at concerts held in St Petersburg, met the composer at Nikolay Rubinstein's early in 1875. By turns sombre and tender in feeling, the Sérénade is a forerunner of the concerto that was to follow three years later. It was first performed by Adolf Brodsky in a Russian Music Society concert in Moscow a year later, and was played by Auer in St Petersburg for the first time in November 1876.
It was in March 1878, in the Swiss resort of Clarens, where he had sought some respite after the disaster of his marriage, that Tchaikovsky set to work on his Violin Concerto. He was joined there by the young violinist Iosif Kotek, who, after his graduation at Moscow Conservatory in 1876, had been employed in the household of Nadezhda von Meck. Kotek played through a great deal of violin and piano music with Tchaikovsky, including Lalo's Symphonie espagnole. Two days after they had played through this work, Tchaikovsky started work on his own concerto, drawing inspiration from the freshness, lightness and piquant rhythms he found in Lalo's work. Two days later the first movement was completed and a week later the whole concerto was ready, so that Kotek, Kotik or Tomcat to Tchaikovsky, was able to play it through, much to the general approval of Tchaikovsky's brother Modest, who had joined the party. The original slow movement, however, seemed less satisfactory in this context and was replaced by the present Canzonetta.
Tchaikovsky would have liked to dedicate the concerto to Kotek, who had been present at its inception, had advised on the lay-out of the violin part and was, in any case, the initial inspiration of the whole work. Discretion and strategy intervened to offer the work to Auer, who was to reject it as unviolinistic, although he took it into his repertoire shortly before the composer's death. The concerto received its first performance from Adolf Brodsky, who played it in Vienna two years later, to the disapproval of the influential critic Eduard Hanslick, who condemned what he regarded as a trivial 'Cossack' element in music that must have appeared to him foreign and barbarous. It was Brodsky who gave the first performance in Russia, in Moscow, the following year.
The first movement of the concerto maintains an almost classical balance of form. It opens with a brief introduction of mounting excitement, interrupted as the soloist leads into his first theme. The second subject, of which Auer approved, is extended by the soloist and is followed by a development section that veers away from a suggested return of the first subject to offer a new theme. An exciting cadenza leads back to the principal subject, a reworking of the first section of the movement, and an exhilarating conclusion. The Canzonetta is introduced by wind instruments, after which the soloist, with the simplest accompaniment, plays a typically Russian melody, a moment of relative tranquillity before the irrepressible energy and brilliance of the final Allegro vivacissimo.
It was in good part Kotek's enthusiasm for his former teacher's music that had brought about the connection between Tchaikovsky and Nadezhda von Meck. The Valse-scherzo, originally for violin and piano, was written in 1877 for Kotek, but first performed two years later by the young Polish violinist Stanislaw Barcewicz, who had also been a pupil of Tchaikovsky at the Moscow Conservatory. The unpretentious piece soon found its way into Nadezhda von Meck's domestic repertoire.
The discarded slow movement of the concerto was to be included in a work designed to thank Nadezhda von Meck for a period in the summer of 1878, spent, in her absence, at her estate at Brailov, in the Ukraine. The set of three pieces was